Southern Company has a longstanding commitment to wildlife habitat preservation and growth. How strong is that commitment? The Wildlife Habitat Council (WHC) has certified all three of its nuclear sites.
The WHC helps corporate landowners manage unused land for the benefit of wildlife. Employees of the Southern Company system’s three nuclear facilities, in conjunction with community members, local conservation groups and government agencies, maintain certification with the WHC for nearly 5,400 acres of land in Georgia and Alabama through their Wildlife at Work program. One of the sites, Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia, just received its recertification and additionally was given WHC’s 2015 Upland Wildlife Management Award. Plant Farley, in southeastern Alabama, is up for recertification in 2016, and Plant Hatch, in southeastern Georgia, will be up for recertification in 2017.
Ken Darby works in the environmental affairs department at Southern Nuclear, Southern Company’s nuclear energy operating company. Before moving into this role, Darby worked at individual nuclear sites as an environmental site specialist.
Darby’s role is multifaceted and includes a number of environmental compliance responsibilities. One of his favorite tasks within his role is overseeing land management and wildlife habitat efforts at all three plants.
“It’s very rewarding – I would love that to be my primary focus,” he says with a laugh.
Darby is also a member of the Southern Company stewardship committee, a team that works in conjunction with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in reviewing and awarding conservation-focused grants for work with longleaf pine restoration, bird conservation, and stream and wetland enhancement projects in the Southern Company territory.
The WHC encourages companies and corporations to manage unused land for wildlife through its certification program. To begin the certification process, WHC will send a wildlife biologist to scope out the site and make recommendations for programs to implement.
“The initial certification doesn’t happen overnight – it’s around a three-year process,” Darby said. “The WHC prefers that you receive some outside guidance for additional expertise on the programs you choose. They also require employee involvement in the programs, so the responsibility doesn’t fall on just one person.”
Programs are made up of a variety of individual projects that target one or more conservation or education objectives, typically focused on habitat or species management.
“One of the most common projects is blue bird box trails,” Darby said. “It’s a very employee-driven program at Southern Company, as we get volunteers to check the boxes. The Farley site has also set up blue bird boxes at several local schools, teaching fourth graders how to monitor the boxes and record activity.”
Other wildlife related programs include duck boxes, which are a good fit among the abundant wetlands around the sites, as well as an apiary program that features honeybee boxes at one plant site and will soon be adopted by a second site.
In addition to the wildlife projects, all three nuclear sites have developed land management programs, which Darby said are larger-scale undertakings that are coordinated with Alabama Power and Georgia Power.
“Longleaf pine restoration is something all three sites have implemented, including clear-cutting up to 80 acres of non-productive hardwoods at one plant and then replanting with longleaf seedlings.”
Managing land for longleaf pine restoration directly benefits a number of wildlife species that depend on the longleaf ecosystem – a landscape that once covered more than 90 million acres across the Southeast but has disappeared dramatically in the past 150 years due to development and land-use practices. A number of wildlife species that rely on longleaf have experienced population decline during that same time period, including the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.
Southern Nuclear and Georgia Power entered into a voluntary, cooperative Safe Harbor Agreement with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007 for the red-cockaded woodpecker at Plant Vogtle, located in east Georgia, and Plant Hatch, located in southeast Georgia. “Through the Safe Harbor Agreements we agree to manage a portion of our land such that adequate habitat will be provided for the red-cockaded woodpecker,” Darby said. “That way, if the birds show up at the site, the habitat is ready for them.”
And proactively managing the habitat is also a helpful tool when it comes to controlling unwanted wildlife such as cogongrass, an invasive grass species fought by natural resource managers across the Southeast.
“It’s getting to the point where keeping the invasive species out is a priority in land management,” said Darby.
All the work that goes into the site land management and WHC certification pays off through the results it has produced.
“This program shows our employees and the public that we are interested in taking care of the environment and being good stewards of our land,” Darby said. “Southern Company has a long history of making communities better off because we are there. It’s good for the employees to feel better about where they work and for the community to see that we’re having a positive impact on the wildlife and environment.”